#67) Do the Right Thing (1989)


#67) Do the Right Thing (1989)

OR “Long Day’s Heat Wave Into Night”

Directed & Written by Spike Lee

Class of 1999

The Plot: “Do the Right Thing” centers around a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn on one of the hottest summer days on record. Mookie (Spike Lee) works for Sal (Danny Aiello) at his pizzeria, but constantly clashes with Sal’s hothead son Pino (John Turturro) over their racial differences. Meanwhile neighborhood drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) tries to woo Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), while Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) attempts a boycott of Sal’s over the lack of African-Americans on his Wall of Fame. As the temperature rises and “Fight the Power” blasts from the boombox of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), the racial tension reaches a boiling point.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “provocative” and praises Lee and his cast. An essay by film critic David Sterritt discusses, among other things, why the film was so divisive in its day. “Do the Right Thing” was included in the NFR after the minimum 10-year eligibility period.

But Does It Really?: Yes! Dear God Yes! This film says so much about racial tension in this country, and unfortunately a lot of it is still relevant (perhaps even more so today than in 1989). Like so many of Lee’s films, “Do the Right Thing” is not here to entertain you. It is here to wake you up, shake you, and remind you that all is not right with the world. Like any film that really wants to you to learn something, it doesn’t actually give a lesson or a resolution. “Do the Right Thing” shows you all sides, points out the shades of gray in the middle, and asks you to think about what “the right thing” really is.

Shout Outs: Brief references to “The Godfather” and “Planet of the Apes”, plus a revised version of the “Love/Hate” speech from “The Night of the Hunter”.

Everybody Gets One: A large selection of the film’s supporting cast, most notably Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez. And yes, that’s Martin Lawrence making his film debut. Truly, everybody gets one.

Wow, That’s Dated: There’s a lot of 1989 culture in this one. From Air Jordan to Roger Clemens to boom boxes the size of a Hummer. Plus, perhaps the most dated reference, a diverse Brooklyn.

Title Track: The great Ossie Davis tells Spike Lee to “always do the right thing”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Do the Right Thing” was praised by many critics and was a success upon its release. The Academy gave it two nominations – Original Screenplay for Lee and Supporting Actor for Aiello – but gave the bulk of that year’s Oscars to “Driving Miss Daisy” instead. Lee was pretty upset about not getting a Best Picture nomination over a film that served racial tolerance with a more genteel hand. He predicted that in the future, “Do the Right Thing” would be the more discussed film between the two. If the NFR is any indication, he’s on to something.

Other notes

  • Speaking of the Oscars, a film with this many African-Americans in it and they give the acting nomination to a white guy. Some things never change.
  • This film introduces up to Rosie Perez. And that opening credits sequence is one hell of an introduction.
  • The easiest way to win me over is to have your lead character shout “Hell no!” to some Jehovah’s Witnesses. I like you, Mookie.
  • In addition to ongoing racial tensions, this film correctly predicted global warming.
  • Sal says that he only puts Italian-Americans on the wall. I hate to break it to him, but Sophia Loren is just Italian.
  • Quick drive-by cameo from Frank Vincent. He must be on his way to beat up Joe Pesci.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. There’s a lot of great camerawork being done here that demands a second viewing. For starters, a lot of these scenes are played out in one continuous take, but the shots are dynamic enough not to make the scene static, but also not flashy enough to call attention to themselves. It’s an impressive balancing act.
  • I also really like how many of the scenes feature other major characters in the background. It really gives the sense of a small neighborhood where everybody’s on top of each other.
  • Piragua guy courtesy of “In the Heights”.
  • Today’s history lesson; the graffiti behind Mookie and Jade that reads “Tawana Told the Truth”.
  • Oh my god I can’t believe they mention Donald Trump in this film. For you future historians, this was back when he was just a punchline in the late 80s, rather than Death, Destroyer of Worlds. [Side note to future readers: How’s Kathy Griffin doing?]
  • I promised myself that I would confess to you, the reader, if any film on this list made me cry. And I will admit that I cried at the death of [Name Redacted].
  • As always, Samuel L. Jackson is the voice of reason. I’m still not convinced that this film has a message, but if it does, I bet it’s “Chill!”


  • Spike Lee’s next film “Jungle Fever” brings back pretty much the entire cast of this film, including the exact same police officer characters!
  • This shout-out on “The Critic”.
  • For some reason, “Do the Right Thing” has yet to spawn an attraction at any of the Universal Studios Theme Parks worldwide.
  • And of course, every “Spike Lee Joint” since then. We’ll see more from Mr. Lee when we take a look at “Malcolm X”.

Listen to This: The film’s main theme “Fight the Power” can be heard on Public Enemy’s third album “Fear of a Black Planet”, one of the most successful and influential hip hop albums of all time. “Fear” made it into the NRR in 2004, being hailed for its “new sound” and for its “coupling of a strongly political message with hip hop music.” I’m just glad that someone finally called out John Wayne on his shit.

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